A snake slid through the long blades of grass that overgrew the football field.
“Is it a krait or a rat snake?” Vishnu, a dark skinned, thickset man in his late forties, asked himself. He watched the snake vanish behind something near the goalpost at the far end of the grounds. A hot puff of breath emanated from his nostrils.
Who would have dreamt this is what would become of the place?
Vishnu knew that the prolonged pandemic had changed everything. His favourite – and the city’s best – football grounds had now become a den for poisonous reptiles and insects.They easily hid within the thickets of three-feet-high barnyard- and spear grass, and the tiny white-flowered parthenium.
The left side of the Paradise Champions League grounds, fenced in by bamboo two years prior, had now fallen apart in many places, defeated by the climbing weeds.
Vishnu could not bear the painful spectacle of the middle of the grounds now sagging. The middle had sunk deep down enough to create a small pool of water where herons and other birds sought food.
Sitting on a plank of wood as a part of a one-sided make-shift gallery, Vishnu stared at his beloved Paradise Sporting Club. Thirty years here had developed for him a deep emotional investment in the grounds.
The Paradise Sporting Club Vishnu used to be indispensable for the skilled defender and centre midfielder. In both positions, Vishnu had often made his opponents kiss the dust.
He ruminated on the days gone by. Football for him was an inseparable part of life. So were these grounds for him. He looked around, and at once, the empty gallery seats filled again with the maddening crowds of spectators.
There went the ball whizzing through the goalpost, befooling the opponent’s goalkeeper Shilton Jelé “the fisherman” Shilton. The score 1 – 0 before half-time in the final against Nabarun Athletics put the Paradise Sporting Club at the advantage.
Soon after half-time, Damodar from the opposing team became the equaliser with 1 – 1. Then started the magic storm of Vishnu.The score board leapt to 5 – 1. The whole crowd shouted “Pele! Pele!” as he was known among the fans.
Vishnu, Pele for the Paradise Sporting Club, was more adept in dodging his opponents than his unending poverty. The most valuable possessions of which his family could brag were the medals and trophies Vishnu had won in his youth.
His wife, a tuberculosis patient, spent her days coughing and scoffing. He proved himself to be an unworthy husband with no food except spinach, boiled potatoes, and rice for every meal and a full-bowl of rice water, a substitute of milk for his ten-year-old son Chima.
His neighbours often pestered Vishnu. “Chima?! What a strange name for a boy! Can’t you change his name?”
Vishu’s endless devotion to football meant anything apart from the game was meaningless for him. Parvati, his wife, knew his devotion to the sport above all else. She knew she came second to football in Vishu’s life.
She could hardly forget her agonised labour pains on the bed of the Betalpur Sub-divisional Hospital without her husband there. The early afternoon timing meant that the Paradise Sporting Club grounds bustled with applause.
Chima Okorie, East Bengal’s famous footballer, was invited by the Paradise Sporting Club to play a charity match. Vishnu couldn’t resist the chance to play against him, and so skipped attending his son’s birth. The Paradise Sporting Club lost the match 4 – 5.
Chima Okorie’s four consecutive goals before half-time left the crowd of spectators mocking the Paradise Sporting Club.
Vishnu was mesmerised by the star’s playing style: magical working of hips, ankles and knees, dribbling, shooting, tackling, dodging. The whirling and spinning of mid-rib and waist with the ball stuck to his boots as a piece of iron dances on a magnet…
The half-time score left them at 5 – 0. Heading towards a shameful defeat, Paradise Sporting Club plunged helpless before Chima Okorie’s magic spell. Vishnu girded his loins to keep his club from such a shameful defeat.
He dodged, dribbled, spun his ankles and whirled his waist, and soon ruled over his opponents. Now the spectators witnessed an unknown local player score ahead of the star player. Chima chased after Vishnu to grab the ball like a child in vain. Vishnu scored three goals. Chima Okorie himself presented Vishnu with a bouquet and a silver medal.
That evening when Vishnu reached the hospital with the silver medal ‘round his neck, the doctors, nurses and even Parvati witnessed a spirit of fatherhood born in Vishnu. Parvati lay on the bed, cradling with their newborn son.
Vishnu bent down to the baby, his medal glistening over the soft, sensitive skin of the child. He looked at the closed eyes and soft, radiant face, and uttered, “I’ll make you a great footballer one day, my child.”
Then, he picked up the child gently and continued. “I’ll call you Chima… What a player! Yes. Your name is Chima.” He pronounced the last few words with such firm conviction that those around felt he could see the future meeting of that dream.
The trance broke and Vishnu rose to his feet. The Paradise Sporting Club grounds were now just an empty, overrun lot. He realised, to his dismay, that his sweet dream had passed and now, his life was not what he had envisioned.
As he looked around, Vishnu grew recalcitrant. He caught hold of a tuft of grass and pulled doggedly to root out the weeds. He would show those intruders on this temple to sports! A shimmering hope arose within his mournful soul.
As he ripped free each tuft from the soil, he felt as though he pulled out a ray of hope for the grounds and those mad, crazy footballers and fans who found joy there.
He squished through the grass and reached the goalposts. A fork-tailed drongo, which sat on the top of the goalpost, looked down at the veritable breakfast buffet of insects in the overgrown barnyard grass, then flew away to chase a nibble.
Vishnu ran his fingers gently over the rusted iron bar. The yellow paint had peeled off in most places.
“The crucial penalty shoot out,” Vishnu murmured, stalled in reverie as he looked across the goalposts. “With only thirty seconds left at the end of the final of Paradise Champions League against defending champion Stars Sporting Club…”
Those memories were old but how he loved to ruminate. Every time he thought of those good old days, the moments arose before him, fresh and new.
The score, 2 – 2, with only a few seconds to go. The opposing team committed a foul and got a red card. Then, the penalty shootout. Vishnu’s left thigh, gashed by spikes, trickled blood. He could barely tolerate the pain. But the wound couldn’t steal his resolve.
He kissed the ball, placed it in front of the goalkeeper who hopped, watching Vishnu with the same fervour his opponent felt. The whistle blew and with it a toe-punch. The ball took flight, shooting straight, but suddenly veering towards the right. Vishnu’s power shot…
Chima had grown into a fine young boy. The money Vishnu earned by scrubbing and cooking in railway quarters barely kept them fed while he played football. The drudgery became intolerable for him. But he thought, “Chima needs a glass of milk daily if he’s to become a great footballer.”
So, he quit the lesser paying jobs and took on work at the local biscuit factory. Soccer boots were packed off for the time being.
Vishnu ran his fingers over the coarse, rusty surface of the goalpost. Lost in thought, he then left the football grounds.
That night, he could hardly close his eyes. Tossing restlessly across the bed, he hit upon a plan. And he knew that the plan had to be carried out as soon as possible. Even better, tonight!
He pressed the torch button and saw the clock: 3:30 a.m. He got out of bed, dressed, and opened the door latch, tiptoeing out to the backyard.
His bloodshot eyes burned as he found the necessary materials in the ramshackle shed, nothing but tin and wooden planks these days. He collected a spade and a wooden-handled, long rusted iron blade, and set off for the football grounds.
The field lights lit up every corner of the grounds. Vishnu felt as if he should prepare to play in a nighttime football match, the whole stadium resurrected with fans.
He started at the corner of the grounds where thickets of parthenium grew. He grabbed the plants and pulled out as many as possible. Then, he chopped off the remaining with his sharp blade. Soon the area looked decent. The enemy weeds could, indeed, be evicted.
After some time had passed, the night watchman patrolled past Vishnu. He whistled and hollered,”Hey! Who are you? What are you doing here?’
Vishnu didn’t stop working, but shouted back, “I’m Vishnu. Don’t you know me? I’m getting these weeds out of the field.”
The watchman came over and smiled at him. “Oh, Vishnu! Who doesn’t know you here?” Then, he looked down at his wristwatch and continued. “But, is this really the time to do this? It’s 4 a.m. Still dark out. Go home and get some sleep first.”
“No,” Vishnu replied firmly. “I can’t sleep until the whole ground’s cleared of these weeds. Think of the little ones, think of my Chima! If they lose the grounds, they’ll be robbed of the joy of life, of football, the game of joy!”’
“But,” the watchman argued. “Your family must be looking for you by now. I think you should leave. It’s too early for this. So many venomous snakes and insects have invaded. You won’t be able to see them coming. Just last week a boy was grazing his goats here and was bitten. He died.”
“Go away! Don’t preach to me about snakes. Let me do my work.”
The watchman left, shaking his head, disgusted.
Vishnu continued cutting and chopping the weeds. Exhaustion from the strain and mad activity stole his breath. He began panting heavily as sweat poured out. But, the more he progressed, the more energetic he became. He would defeat his floral enemies and reclaim the grounds.
The red glow of dawn gradually spread across the eastern sky. The tall buildings and coconut trees formed silhouettes on the horizon. Vishnu continued his work, vigorous with the insane drive to finish before the sun rose. Nothing could steal him from the task at hand.
Suddenly he felt a twinge of pain in his left toe, as though pricked by something sharp. He looked up, and to his horror, caught sight of the gleaming skin of a krait disappearing into the grass.
The pain gradually increased, becoming excruciating in just a few minutes. Vishnu sank to the ground. He caught hold of his left toe with both of his hands and bent down to observe the two tiny holes where blood trickled out.
Looking round he saw with pleasure that most of the grounds had been cleared of weeds. He gathered strength. He forced himself to get up and hobbled to the fence. Blood continued to ooze out.
The pain was now nearly intolerable. Vishnu felt dizzy, as the strength drained out bit by bit. But he reached out to the last remaining creeping plants and pulled them away from the fence, then chopped them off.
He sank again to the ground as everything blurred away. Breathing heavily, Vishnu smiled. “My Chima will play. The little ones will have their grounds again. I’d never let them lose their paradise.”
He knew his time had ended, the great Vishnu, local football hero. He flopped over and kissed the ground, for he, too, had gotten back his Paradise, even if for only a moment.
Looking for more? Check out these other short stories from the MockingOwl Roost’s staff and contributors.
Debasish Banerjee, lives in West Bengal, India. He is a freelancer and teacher of English language and literature. He made his writing career notable by getting published in some renowned journals across the world. They are Kitaab International (Singapore), YAWP Journal , Otherwise Engaged Literary Magazine (U.S.A), Contemporary Literary Review India (Mumbai) and MockingOwl Roost(U.S.A). He is received the India Prime Authors Award 2021. He believes that creating stories is like unfolding an unknown chapter our life, a pen should never be stopped when creating fantasy.